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All staff at the Ugandan High Commission in the United Kingdom are to be investigated for fraud by the British police after President Yoweri Museveni waived their diplomatic immunity.
The investigations relate to their suspected involvement in a smuggling ring that led to the loss of tax revenues on goods worth £2 million ($3.4 million).
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office had asked Uganda to waive their diplomatic cover to facilitate investigation of a scheme in which some members of staff are suspected to have abused their status to buy goods duty-free and sell them. The offence carries a jail sentence.
Diplomats have a quota of spirits, cigarettes, cigars and perfume that they can import duty free.
Minister for International Affairs Okello Oryem confirmed that Uganda was co-operating with the investigators: “The president has written lifting the immunity of the diplomats and officials working at the London High Commission. Don’t be surprised to hear that a Ugandan diplomat is in jail in the UK.”
The government had earlier said it would not waive the immunity for the diplomats, but would co-operate with the UK police and take appropriate action on officials implicated if found guilty.
The investigations were launched following concerns raised by UK Customs officials over the volume of goods being taken into the country by Uganda House, based at Trafalgar Square in London.
Revenue officials found that the High Commission had brought in duty-free goods worth £2 million. It was not clear over how long a period the offence took place.
The UK police contacted the High Commission in March 2012, and asked the Ugandan High Commissioner Joan Rwabyomere to explain why the High Commission needed the goods.
Preliminary reports indicate that the Ugandan diplomats were acquiring the goods in the name of the High Commission and then reselling them in the open market, an action that, if proven, would amount to abuse of diplomatic privileges and earn them a jail term in the UK.
Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961, only diplomats are allowed to purchase duty-free goods.
They are exempted from paying taxes on cars, food and electrical equipment that they import into a country.
Uganda Foreign Affairs Ministry had earlier said the two officials at the centre of the fraud were no longer workers at the UK mission but were “members of locally recruited, non-diplomatic staff.”
The ministry identified them as John Ndawula and Patrick Mbogo but said their whereabouts were unknown.
Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs chair Sam Okuonzi Agatre said his committee plans to travel to London after the budget reading to investigate a number of incidents at the High Commission, including the poor working relations between the staff and the ambassador.
According to Mr Okuonzi the committee has received information to the effect that arrest of the officials could be announced soon.
“There will be some arrests soon, the minister told us so, but we cannot rely on government solely; the committee will visit the embassy to gather more information.”
“I don’t blame the officials, Uganda is the only country in the region where Foreign Service officials are paid so miserably, so to try to make ends meet, they could have engaged in selling duty free goods,”
– The EastAfrican